(Carried in The Hindu, April 2006; I loved driving down to Dehradun for the day to do this interview, and perhaps some of that comes through.)
Like most fans of his work, I assume I know Allan Sealy: through the five previous books, through the readings he’s done over the years, the occasional journalistic writings that my generation of students used to discuss late into the night, from the interviews and book signings. Allan has his fair share of the usual paraphernalia of a writer’s life, especially when that writer comes from a generation so often analysed and written about: the same generation as Amitav Ghosh, Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Tharoor and company.
It’s only now, breathing in the crisp air of this afternoon in Dehradun, standing in the garden of his house—”look for blue gates and trees, lots of trees”—that it strikes me: I have never seen Allan Sealy in his own element. This man moves with exuberance around the garden as he shows off the trees he planted ten years ago. (“Brazilian coral bean (scarlet), Mexican silk cotton (pink and yellow), Chinese golden shower (dread dominatrix)”, as his narrator names them slyly in Red , Sealy’s most recent book).
He talks of broadband connections—will they deliver him from the agony of crawling speeds on the Net, the tyranny of Dilawar Singh, the local linesman? And of his hatred of phones: we spend six serene minutes eating an excellent lunch cooked by Allan and his wife—steamed vegetables, a fish bake, strawberries and jaggery and cream—ignoring the shrill summons of the baleful instrument on the side table.
We exchange poetry, a Borges collection for Craig Raine, and Allan discusses his early infatuation with painting, his wary infatuation with Delhi (“a good lover but a bad wife”), his lasting love for Dehradun, which appears in Red lightly camouflaged as Dariya Dun. The difference between the quiet man I’ve seen in Delhi, the one who says he would like to return to Doon because his garden is coming up and that’s much more important than longwinded seminar questions, and this confident, open writer is startling.
His other books are explained in chronological order as a journey ( From Yukon to Yucatan ), a chronicle (the vast and capacious Trotter-Nama ), a fable ( Hero ), a calendar ( Everest Hotel ) and an illusion ( The Brainfever Bird ).
But Red carries no colon, no explanation. It starts with Aline, a woman we meet in a museum who sees the world through colour, and ends with Zach, a musician who understands the world as sound. Their stories are connected by N, the narrator, a writer who lives in the foothills of the Himalayas. Presiding over their lives is Matisse (“he’s the patron saint of my book”), whose The Red Room and The Painter’s Family tower over the novel. The alphabet offers the reader a kind of guide, taking us from A for A line (see also Appendix) to Z, for Zaccheus, Zeebytes.com, Zipphone, Z-zzz and Zom. Artists rule the book: Aline paints, Zach serves his music, N writes, and a gang of Blackshorts in the Dariya Dun valley, unable to enter the world of museums or music ateliers, make a fine art of thieving and creating truck paintings.
“In The Brainfever Bird , I tried to do something that probably doesn’t come naturally to me: narrative! It’s a terrible confession, in a conventional sense, because a novelist is supposed to tell stories,” says Allan. “But I don’t think that’s a novelist’s sole or even primary duty. With Red , I just gave in to my notion that you should go off: I’ve always done that, from The Trotter-nama onwards.” Each chapter of Red plays on a different letter of the alphabet. “It keeps you on the straight and narrow, but it also allows you to branch off. You should be able to jump in at any point. I love that bitty approach.”
The inspiration for Red is right behind me, in the glorious, singing, bright red paint that covers the shelves of a tiny pantry. Allan explains how the drawing room used to open into a doorless bathroom: his mother had intended to use the space as a schoolroom for small children, and the absence of the door was deliberate. The bathroom gained a door, the kitchen a small pantry, and we acquired a new Allan Sealy novel—all through happenstance.
“I was painting this—the shelves, the alcove,” says Allan, reaching for his copy of Red to explain. “It’s in the poem, it’s in the poem, that’s where it is.” And he reads from the poem on page 248: “Red came to me this way, no lie/ With the astounding rightness of a black swan’s beak…” He went off to Hurla hardware, the shop I had passed earlier on the road, and found a litre of Signal Red. “One red they carried in acrylic and only one/ not my dodgy haemoglobin red mercurochrome or port/ not scarlet crimson not poppy not opticalmouse red not glorypea/ nothing on the fancy shade card but/ stopgo red.”
It turned out to be a close cousin of the red Matisse was famous for. At the time he wrote Red , Sealy had visited The Hermitage, spending hours in front of The Red Room and The Painter’s Family , carrying back as a souvenir the cups in Petersburg blue from which we’re drinking fresh-brewed coffee. “There are more Matisses probably under that roof than in the rest of the world put together,” he says.
Sealy saw a parallel between what had happened in Matisse’s family life and his own—the surface peace interrupted by quiet schisms, the family dealing with the artist’s disappearance into a world where no one else can follow. He was fascinated by Matisse’s apparent conformity, the turbulence lurking under the beauty of those colours. “He’s such a revolutionary painter; he wears a tie, he’s bourgeois, and he’s a revolutionary, and then you begin to wonder: maybe revolutionaries do wear ties.”
“I love colour,” says Allan. It’s the only superfluous statement he’ll make; that love shows all through the house, in the aqua of his study, the monkish yellow of the tiles in the kitchen, the red cafetiere on the table, the weatherworn brick of the garden wall complemented by the brilliant green of the creepers. “If you write about what you love, you’re likely to be able to pull it off, providing you have certain basic skills.”
The conversation turns to practical matters. Like book sales: “If you’re a writer who doesn’t sell, the smallest blip of a sale makes you ecstatic.” Sealy is uncompromising: “Part of me thinks, what’s the point of writing if you’re only going to write for twelve bright readers. But with every book, maybe one per cent you think of the reader, ninety nine you’re thinking of yourself, what you want to say.” Of the publishing industry today: “Thank god for the way it’s set up, successful writers bail out the unsuccessful ones who’re willing to do what they want even if they lose their readers. A hundred years ago, there would have been no room for someone like me.” And the name on the cover of Red : Irwin Allan Sealy, the full name instead of the initial ‘I’ for the first time. “I’ve been told it’s not Indian enough, that the kind of English reader who would look for ‘Indian writing’ would put my books down. So this is my response. Fuck you. This is who I am, it’s also my father’s name, it’s also a tribute to him.”
“It took me till my thirties to give myself permission to see myself as a writer. You’re measuring yourself against the best; it takes time to be able to say to yourself, I could do that—I could do better than that. Even in your twenties, you know that life is short, you know that you’re never going to read everything you want to read. So you’re always sifting. You’re trying to get at the very best from the very beginning. If you’re actually looking at yourself as a writer, you’re looking at all the possible books you could ever write, even if you don’t live to write them.”
I ask about his characters, the way they have of popping up from one book to another. Eugene Trotter from The Trotter-nama makes a brief appearance in Red ; so does Bisht from The Everest Hotel . He grins. “It’s nice to keep in touch with the guys—or girls—from the past. When they look at you, it’s an accusing look: it says, you have abandoned me. Bringing them back is a way of saying, I have not.”
I can almost see them; Trotter, and his father, serving nimbu-pani at a Daryaganj hotel in Brainfever Bird , Bisht, now at home in the thana of Dehradun, other ghosts from Sealy’s pages. In this house, where Sealy is so very clearly at home, they’ve taken possession of quiet nooks and corners. “I’m very happy,” he says. “I don’t know why. It’s a kind of lunacy.” He has plans for the house; more colours to be brought in, walls to be bashed in to make room for windows. More trees planned, to hide his neighbours’ houses from view: “It’s nice to just blot out that house, THAT house, that one: Tree! Tree! Tree!” He has taken possession: “In a way, what you’re taking possession of is not the place but yourself, and that’s a source of strength.”
The sadness that usually descends on him once a book is finished is in abeyance; he’s been thinking of other projects. A novel about a family of engineers, some sane, some crazy. A serious history of Dehradun and the Valley, perhaps a travelogue. A long poem, marking a shift towards poetry, towards condensation. Red is the first book he’s written on the computer, instead of in longhand, and Sealy thinks that perhaps the medium encourages compression, just as the pen encourages longwinded, Trollope-length narratives, Dickensian digressions.
“The process of writing a book gets you to a higher, greater intensity than almost anything I can think of,” he had said earlier. “Your world for the duration of that book, the writing of it, is truly other. There’s no way of describing it to anybody who, even anybody you live with. It’s a good feeling, the equivalent of the chemical high. Writers are addicted to that other world in the way that a drunk is to his booze.”
Now, as we say our farewells, I ask if he’s moved beyond the need to question himself. Irwin Allan Sealy laughs. “A writer has constant self-doubt. There is only that interplay between total despair and complete self-confidence. There’s nothing else. Really. There’s nothing else. Probably both at the same time.” And then he goes back to more important things: the trees need pruning, watering, the civet cats are illegally occupying the verandah chairs, his garden needs attention.